“Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, they’re noir wave!” insists Yannick Ilunga, though that might have come as a surprise to those dead legends. The young South African songwriter coined that term just a couple years ago to describe the shape-shifting pop music he makes as Petite Noir. “They were pushing boundaries,” he says. “I guess at the time it was something different, but it’s the same sort of concept.“ Petite Noir’s two 2015 releases, The King of Anxiety EP, and full-length debut La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful draw from far-flung influences, pairing deep soul and R&B with corroded post-punk guitar, taking rhythmic inspiration from hip-hop and electronic music, as well as more traditional African music. His eclecticism is thoroughly modern, but Ilunga’s music itself isn’t jarring. It’s confident, lived-in, plainly romantic and elegantly low-key.
Illunga starting playing guitar and singing as a teenager living in Cape Town. ”I was into punk vibes and metal when I was a kid,” he says, explaining his leap from only playing in church to performing with a metal band called Fallen Within at age fifteen. He describes his home town as a nexus of co-mingling subcultures, punk venues, house music and hip hop clubs. But he doesn’t necessarily consider Petite Noir to be a direct product of Cape Town’s musical eclecticism, so much as the his own expansive interests. “It’s a product of a lot of things, being very into music from an early age, paying attention to music. But that’s part of the ingredient, sure.” He soaked music up from whatever source he could, friends, neighbors, clubs. He stockpiled physical CDs and accessed expansive digital archives on the Internet. (“Even magazines were still alive at that stage,” he jokes.) Drunk on Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, he’d swing to a hazy chillwave sound soon after, before landing on Petite Noir’s more nuanced sound.
The end point of this first period of creative wandering was Petite Noir’s excellent debut EP, The King of Anxiety. He culled its five songs down from a full record he recorded at Red Bull Studios in Cape Town. (Though they’ve cozied up to him now, Petite Noir was not an artist involved in that brand’s globe-spanning Music Academy program. “I applied, but they rejected my application.”) Life Is Beautiful, is a more consistent, dynamic full-length follow-up. Informed by the challenges of making the EP, Ilunga wrote all of the next record’s songs in Cape Town, arriving at Box Ten Studios in London with a vision fully formed.
Petite Noir played seven shows at last week’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, and scheduled a couple dates on each coast to make the most of a rare U.S. trip. It’s the first time, Ilunga’s noticed a fan base developing here. “I think it’s growing well, and enjoy seeing that” he says. His two sold-out shows this weekend (Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn tonight, Mercury Lounge in Manhattan tomorrow) mark his first time performing in New York since he playing Brooklyn’s beloved Afropunk Festival last summer. “It was amazing,” he says. “That was the best festival I ever played!” Afropunk’s vision of black alternative artists leapfrogging set ideas, and old genre stereotypes to make bold, individualistic music is exactly the thing he’s sought to create himself. “They should actually change the name to the Noir Wave Festival.”
That Petite Noir’s creative purpose should align so closely with an organization founded half a world away is no coincidence. He checked the organization’s website constantly as a teen, used it to gain strength for his own creative impulses. “That was when I was like 15, 16, 17, in high school. The website had other people like me, all kinds of music. At that time it wasn’t really that open, for Africans, for the black community. Afropunk was almost my point of reference to being who I am, in a way. Which is crazy.”
Though he’s playing with a core group of musicians now, Ilunga doesn’t see Petite Noir as a “band” per se, with a set lineup carrying over from album to album, tour to tour. “For live, I understand,” he says, “but in the studio I don’t see the point of using the same band all the time.” He’s increasingly sought after as a collaborator. Having toured with Solange Knowles and recorded with Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) already at age 24, he mentions Santigold and Danger Mouse at the top of a very long list of artists he’d like to link up with next. “I want to expand it, to keep on collaborating.”
Photo by Travys Owen